Some Features of Great Literature


by David Cope


1.  Able to present many different situations convincingly and characters from a broad range of social classes with empathy and understanding; not limited to a "single-point" perspective on situations.


2.  Characters shown with psychological depth and clarity of motivation; trajectories of characters involve true change, growth or awareness that is motivated by represented experience that is appropriate to cause such change. 


3.  Grasps the spirit and historical particulars of the age yet seems able to transcend them, maintaining a grasp of particulars that goes beyond the topical to explore imaginative nexus of deeper significance.


4.  Language:  often expands the use of language by breaking "rules" and by including the language of many social classes while presenting virtuoso use of techniques available in the medium (see #8).


5.  Philosophical function:  the work explores the complexities of philosophical issues pertinent not only to the time, but for every age; yet it is not merely programmatic or hortatory:  themes grow out of presented situations.  Besides these complexities of thought, the greatest texts contain, imply, or represent skepticism about the most hallowed assumptions of their day:   they   challenge us to rethink our humanity and our relationship to society and the larger cosmos we inhabit.  


6.  Influence:  the work is of such importance that it exercises an influence on later artists working in the medium, either stylistically or through its exploration of themes.


7.  Ambiguity sufficient to stir continuous debate as to what the text presents:  psychological, economic and social complexity, sub-textual movements that increase irony or paradox when viewed in relation to the text's apparent "project." 


8.  A variety of "styles"—refusal to be limited to one continuous and unrelieved approach to the subject, with use of figures of speech, symbols, and conventional motifs to elaborate and complicate narrative form. 


9.  Formal integrity:  the author controls the text well enough so that its apparent agenda is realized (with the aforementioned subtexts) with enough economy—as Pound said, use no word that doesn't contribute to the presentation.  At the same time, the text should absolutely refuse the programmatic—those texts conceived to fulfill or promote a narrowly defined political agenda.  Nor should control be so lax that the text wanders without purpose.